Missouri lawmakers want discussion about I-70 tolls

Wednesday, November 16, 2011 | 5:35 p.m. CST; updated 8:51 a.m. CST, Saturday, January 21, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — A committee of state lawmakers praised the Missouri Department of Transportation Wednesday for igniting a discussion about installing tolls on Interstate 70 between Kansas City and St. Louis but stopped short of endorsing the idea.

MoDOT is asking lawmakers for the authority to form a partnership with private contractors to rebuild I-70 and recover the costs with revenue collected from tolls. MoDOT director Kevin Keith said the state would get a rebuilt highway and could divert the $75 million to $90 million spent each year on I-70 to other transportation projects.

Sen. Bill Stouffer, chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight, said it is important to consider all the available options for improving Missouri's transportation system. He said he doubts tolls could immediately pass the legislature.

"I'm not sure the public is ready for that, but we need the discussion," said Stouffer, R-Napton. "Quite frankly, I don't see a tax increase passing in the present economic environment, and we can't just sit there and do nothing."

Stouffer, who several years ago proposed a 1-cent sales tax increase to rebuild I-70 and Interstate 44, said he was concerned tolls could push vehicles from I-70 onto highways not necessarily designed for the increased traffic.

Nonetheless, several lawmakers on the joint committee said Wednesday that they are pleased officials were coming forward with a plan to prompt a discussion.

"I think the conversation is going to be healthy," said Rep. Thomas Long, R-Battlefield.

Missouri lawmakers return to the Capitol in January for their annual legislative session.

Keith said rebuilding I-70 would cost roughly $2 billion to $4 billion depending on how ambitious the project becomes. A less expensive option would call for expanding the highway to three lanes, while a more costly plan would establish dedicated truck lanes. Installing tolls would require federal permission, and Missouri already has been given tentative approval through a federal pilot program.

"It is the only method that we know to fund rebuilding I-70 that exists to MoDOT and the state of Missouri today," Keith said.

He estimated that other funding options would require a 15-cent increase to Missouri's fuel tax for the next decade or an extra half-cent sales tax for the next 10 years.

Missouri has mulled toll roads in the past. Transportation officials say I-70 is worn out and is approaching the limits for its capacity to carry cars and trucks. That means traffic accidents and road repairs can cause traffic to back up for miles.

The toll proposal for I -70 is modeled after a plan for building a new Mississippi River bridge in St. Louis that permitted private investors to charge a toll in exchange for helping to pay for building the new bridge. The Missouri legislature approved that proposal, but it was not used because Illinois officials did not support a toll bridge.

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